the Obsidian Key
Book Two of the Legend of Asahiel
The winter storm tore across the land, ripping and snarling like a caged beast set free at last. Its howling breath wailed in his ears. Its frigid claws raked his skin. The darkness of its maw enveloped the earth, rendering deliberate progress a fool’s dream.
Grum looked again to his battered compass, scraping at the ice that shielded its surface. Its needle swung uselessly, drawn in random circles. He shook the instrument, cursing it to the smelter of Achthium’s Forge. To the west were the Skullmars, the treacherous peaks from which they’d been blown off course. To the east, the tempest of the sea. Or so he assumed. The world around him had disappeared, its planes and edges forced together in a hazy smear. Head bowed, eyes squinting against frenzied gusts of windblown earth, he could scarcely spy the ground beneath his feet, let alone even the largest of markers that might guide him home.
He risked a backwards glance to check on his companions. He could see but one, Raegak, tethered to him at the waist in their makeshift line. Beyond that, the rope stretched into the swirling void of pelting ice and strafing winds. He could only hope the others were still there, stumping after, knowing that to become separated now would mean dying alone in these frozen wastes.
Not that remaining together afforded great consolation. Truth was, they were hopelessly lost, miles from the safety and comfort of their subterranean home. And even if home lay just around the bend, were they to stumble half a step to the left or right, they might pass right on by without ever knowing it.
Raegak glanced up, eyes hollow, snow clinging to his beard. Grum looked quickly away, hiding his compass within a gnarled fist, determined to mask his dismay from those who looked to him for solace. He was toifeam, leader of this expedition, and by Achthium, he would see them through.
To accentuate this silent oath, he crammed the worthless compass deep into a leather pouch. At that same moment, the earth fell away, and he found himself scrabbling against a clutching blackness. Chunks of ice and gravel skittered beneath his feet, while a shower of snow cascaded about him. Everything seemed to be sucking him down, down into some depthless—
A sharp tug caught him about the waist, folding him violently forward and snatching the wind from his lungs. For a moment he slid downward again, before coming to a lurching halt. Curtains of snow slid past as his companions struggled with their footing above. He hung there, twisting in the abyss, before reaching up for the lip of the pit, where Raegak, stout legs braced against the earth, bent down and offered a leather-wrapped hand.
Moments later, Grum huddled with his companions around the rim of the breach, peering into its depths. Should it prove to be the shelter that saved them, he would forgive himself his fright from the fall. Nevertheless, he had lived in these mountains long enough to know not to trust them. Such clefts in the earth’s hide might become fissures descending hundreds, even thousands of feet—or if not, might open into the den of some surly creature in no mood to share its home. Even the most foolish of his kin knew better than to enter such an opening without knowing what lay within.
Producing with frozen hands a flint and steel, Grum worked to light the pitch-coated head of a thornweed firebrand. He may as well have tried to do so beneath the black waters of the sea. No sooner did the sparks flare to life than they were borne away by shrieking flurries. Grum persisted, ignoring the stiffness setting into his unmoving joints, lips pressed tight in a determined frown. At last, feeling the hopeless stares of his comrades upon him, he slipped his flint back into its pouch and motioned for Raegak to put the torch away.
He regarded each of his companions in turn—Raegak, Durin, Alfrigg, and Eitri. Friends for more than a generation, they held a shared understanding, their faces reflecting hopes and fears that mirrored his own. They would have to risk it. To prolong their exposure any longer would be fatal.
After a few quick signals, each began working loose the knot that bound him to his companions. Grum alone left his intact, for he would be lowered first. Only after assuring himself of the relative safety of this hidden cave would the others follow. With any luck, nature’s wrath would expire by morning and allow them to begin the task of finding their way back from this wayward trek.
With the thickness of their gloves—and the fingers within numbed almost beyond use—even this simple task proved arduous. Doubled over, they picked at the iced ropes while quivering lips muttered private oaths. Grum watched them for a moment, until a flicker of motion drew his attention down into the hole. He leaned forward, peering intently, but saw only the void. He was about to shake it off as a trick of the storm when it came again, just a hint of movement, of something even darker than the ink in which it swam, shriveled and twisted, almost like—
He fell back as the thing shot forward, blinding in its swiftness. There was a flap of wings, a splash of blood, and a terrible cry that just barely resounded in the din of the gale. By the time Grum had regained his balance, Raegak knelt in the snow, his empty shoulder socket gushing. Already, the thing had moved on. An ebony claw seized Alfrigg by the face. He screamed as barbed nails gouged his flesh, tearing free chunks of skin and even an eyeball. Before he, too, had fallen to his knees, a silent Durin lay gasping, his throat flayed wide.
Grum brought his pick-axe up just in time to deflect a strike from the whirlwind that pressed him. It hit him like a sack of gravel, and off he flew into the blizzard, the pick-axe sailing from his grasp. He caught a glimpse of red-bearded Eitri, battle-axe drawn, peering up at a shapeless mass of whipping black tendrils—like a shredded pennant snapping in the breeze. Raegak, the iron bear, was rising to his feet. Then the battle scene vanished, devoured by a roaring curtain of ice.
Down an invisible slope he flew, skidding headfirst on his backside. His fingers clawed desperately, leather gauntlets plowing the frozen earth. As before, however, he jerked to a halt almost before he realized what was happening. This time, the rope bit into his skin, wedged into a seam of his woolen garments. He grimaced sharply, then reached immediately for his own battle-axe, his first and only thought that his companions needed him.
That changed when the rope about his waist gave a sharp tug. He sat up, seeking to find his feet, when another yank threw him down once more. He knew straightaway by the strength of the force that it was not his companions who were at the other end, hauling him back.
Panic seized him. Instinctively, he gave up trying to free the unwieldy battle-axe and reached instead for his smaller hand-axe.
It slipped from his belt as the creature snatched his ankle with a crushing grip. Grum felt his bones splinter, and he arched his back in agony, letting loose an involuntary wail. His enemy pulled, dragging him up toward the lip of the hole that moments before had tempted him with salvation. Summoning his strength, Grum bucked at the waist and brought the blade of his weapon down hard. A shriek rang out, and, as the creature recoiled, Grum aimed a second strike at the length of rope that served as his tether. It split at once, curled up against the edge of a stone and cleaved by the diamond-edged sharpness of his blade. As his enemy leaned in, more carefully this time, Grum gave a shout and hurled himself out of harm’s way.
The fire in his ankle erupted as he bounced and rolled down the mountainside. The slope wasn’t steep, but the icy conditions would not allow him to slow. Nor did he try. Using gravity as his ally, he clenched his jaw and rolled onward, as far and fast as his god would allow. He gave no thought to where he was going. His only prayer was that whatever he had uncovered would not give chase.
He should have known better. The Skullmar Mountains, even at low elevation, comprised some of the most unforgiving terrain found above or below the earth. Though impossible to gauge, he doubted he had covered even a hundred paces before the ground beneath him once again gave way. This time, there was nothing to halt his descent as first the fall, and then frigid darkness claimed him.
* * *
It was the light that woke him, illuminating a world both foreign and familiar. A world without color, sound, or smell. Yet it remained, somehow, a world of pain.
Numbed, yes, though not so fully that he was dead to its touch. It coursed through him in shallow waves, radiating from one area in particular. Drawn down the length of his body, his gaze fell upon the region of his lower left leg.
Understanding, creeping along a pace or two behind, leapt forth like a thief from the bushes. Although packed loosely in fallen snow, his shattered anklebone lay exposed enough to reveal the truth. His memory flashed back in an instant to the secret cave, the sudden struggle, his rolling flight from the savage creature that had ambushed them all.
And after? He opened his eyes, realizing only then that he had closed them against the onrush of mental imagery. His colorless prison he now recognized as a crevasse, a scar in the surface-earth whose floor was filled with a mattress of snow. This bedding had saved him, unless he missed his guess, for the rift’s opening stood at least two dozen feet above where he now lay. The breach itself had been plugged by a wedge of ice and boulders, sent skidding after him as part of the small avalanche he had no doubt triggered. A fortunate turn, really, for the natural barrier had sheltered him from both beast and storm—the only explanation as to why he still drew breath.
Any joy wrought by this discovery quickly faded, however, as he thought of his friends. He had to assume they had perished, far from their homes in the shadow-earth, made to face death out-of-doors like a pack of wild dogs. He shut his eyes in pained remembrance: Raegak, bairn of Raethor; Durin, bairn of Nethrim; Alfrigg, bairn of Adwan; Eitri, bairn of Yarro.
And Tyrungrum, bairn of Garungum, he added harshly, tacking his own name to the list. For if he did not haul himself from this hole quickly, it would become his cairn. Dwarven flesh or no, he could not survive these elements forever. If the cold did not claim him, his hunger would. As it was, he ran the risk of being buried alive if he could not dig free before the next layer of snow fell.
Tentatively, Grum lifted an arm from where it lay half-buried in powdery snowfall. He reached first for his face and then his head, feeling along its growths and protuberances, tracing the signature collection of bone spurs that marked him unique among his people. At least a handful of those spurs—along with his nose—were frostbitten, he was sure. But that was the least of his concerns.
Somewhat encouraged, he shook free his other arm and worked now to pat along his chest and each of his gnarled limbs, making sure all was intact. It took more than a steep fall to damage a Hrothgari, he thought heartily. His brightening mood, however, lasted only as long as it took to haul himself into a sitting position, at which point the pain in his crushed ankle flared to agony. He gritted away the worst of it, waiting for the body-stiffening waves to subside. Eventually they did, though he shuddered to think of how it would feel once he had thawed.
First things first, he reminded himself, forcing his eyes open and his head back. At least the storm had passed. The sun shone brightly through cracks in the ceiling of his shelter—and through those covered areas where the ice and snow was thinnest. Water dripped here and there, mostly to catch along cavern walls already wet with moisture. It occurred to him that his roof might melt suddenly and dump upon him. But then, that would be almost too easy.
He cast about for his hand-axe, remembering belatedly that he had let it go early on after making his escape, so as not to carve his own hide during his frantic tumble. His pick-axe was gone as well. All that remained to him was the hefty battle-axe—strapped to his pack—that he had been unable to free in the fight above. A poor climbing tool, but it would have to suffice.
As he reached around to grip the weapon’s familiar haft, he recalled his final vision of Eitri, axe in hand to face certain death. In another time and place, the image might have brought tears to his eyes. But time now was his enemy. He would pay tribute to his comrades and beg their families’ forgiveness later.
Biting down against a pain made worse by the slightest of movements, he shifted his pack from his knotted shoulders. When at last he had shrugged free, he paused to catch his breath. He then brought the pack around in front of him, careful to set it to the side and not on his lap. He paused momentarily to admire the bag’s straps and buckles, not one of which had failed him.
Then he went to work.
Like it or not, he had to do something about his leg. He didn’t need to see beneath his boot to know that his toes would be purple with blood loss. Judging by its mashed appearance, the limb was lost to him, if not now, then by the time he dragged it back to Ungarveld. But fresh wounds were often deceiving, and he preferred that a surgeon make the final determination—not to mention any amputation. Still, he could not have it flinging about, threatening his climb at every pull.
After some quick rummaging, he pulled free an unguent, then changed his mind and took three long draughts from his mead cask. Only then did he dip his fingers in the salve with grim intent. Rather than cut away his boot and leave his foot exposed, he reached carefully inside the padded interior . . .
A mere brush against the damaged area was like bathing it in molten metal. His resulting bellow echoed in the confines of the narrow cavern and within the canyons of his throbbing ears.
The noise, as much as the pain, gave him pause. He bit off his own scream—nearly taking his tongue off in the bargain—and shook his head, which swelled with the unreleased pressure. As spasms wracked his body, he listened intently, fearful of what monsters the outburst might bring down upon him.
But as the moments passed, and the only sounds remained those muffled by the closeness of his icy tomb, he began to relax and think clearly once more. Had the creature from above wanted him, it would have sniffed him out the night before. His trek had taken him into the southern reaches of the Skullmars along the eastern coastline. His friends were dead. Just who did he suspect might hear him?
He’d spent just a short time alone, and already he was raving. He needed to get moving before madness set in.
He decided against further use of the unguent. As of this moment, he’d be lucky to die of infection. And its numbing properties wouldn’t do much more than the snow already had.
Seeing no way around it, he doubled up a length of leather and placed it in his mouth to guard against further screams. He then unstoppered his scroll tube, set aside the rolled maps of tanned goatskin, and used a diamond-edged dirk to split the hard leather canister down its center. After carving out the base, he had himself the makings of an excellent splint.
Lashing the guard into place was another matter. By his estimation, it took more than fifty drips from Achthium’s Spear, though the great stalactite by which his kinsmen gauged the passing of time was far away from here. Still, he only lost consciousness once, and completed the task with no more than a dozen swallows of mead. When finished, he felt immeasurably better about his prospects.
He fastened his climbing spikes next, to the foot of his good leg. He sure as stone wouldn’t be putting any weight on the injured one. His hammer and anchors hung in a pouch about his waist. The rest of his belongings, those not needed for the actual climb, he left in his pack, to which he measured and tied a long length of rope. He secured the other end to a rear loop in his belt, making sure to leave plenty of slack. He could not have the pack weighing him down, and yet he wanted to be sure he would be able to retrieve it once he’d reached the top.
As a final precaution, he gathered as much loose snow as possible into the center of the chamber, so as to more deeply cushion any fall. After that, he attached his hand spikes, mapped his desired path, and began to climb.
It seemed impossible at first. Just rolling over and levering himself from the floor was a test of will unlike any he could recall. As soon as he stood, the blood began returning to his feet, causing him to swoon with agony. But the mead helped, and the thought of having to start all over again kept him upright. Reaching up, he set his first anchor, buckled tight his safety rope, and, with one leg, lunged for his first mark.
He made it, and clung there for some time, grimacing in pain, wondering how in the world he could make himself do this. It would be so much easier to simply lie down and let the ice take him. Yet he was determined that if Achthium were to come for him, here and now, He would not find him lying down.
It grew easier after that, though his pace was methodical at best. From shelf to shelf he hauled himself, doing most of the work with his hands, while using his good foot as his base. Where there wasn’t a handhold, he used his axe to chip away at the earthen skin. He set his anchors dutifully, at least every third pull. Despite his best efforts to protect it, his wounded leg bounced and swayed, clipping the stone every now and then, causing him to grind his teeth into nubs. But the splint served its purpose, shielding him from the worst of it, allowing him to continue.
Hours passed. Hunger and thirst assailed him. Grum ignored these aches as he did all the others, drawing himself ever higher, until at last the doorway to his freedom came within reach.
Perched beneath the lip of the crevasse, he paused to gather his strength. Above the sound of his own labored breathing, he heard what he believed to be more than just the wind. There was that, to be sure, whistling through the cracks of his ceiling, but there was something else, deeper and angrier, the unmistakable restlessness of the sea. Had he and his team strayed so far?
When ready, he set a final anchor and pulled forth his axe. The daylight was fading, its red glow through the ice dimmed. The sooner he emerged, the better, especially if he wished to find new, suitable shelter before nightfall.
He stopped short, however, before making his first cut. Once again, fear gripped him, the dread possibility that that creature might still be out there, waiting for him. Hack through this blanket of packed snow, and he might bring his own death down upon him.
Grum growled the notion away as he had before. If that was his fate, so be it. He deserved no better than his friends.
The snow was thicker than it appeared, and more solid. Sun melt throughout the day had helped turn it to ice. Grum braced himself as well as he could and continued to chip away, forced to hit harder than he would have liked. After all, he had to be careful not to dislodge the entire pack, for if he were to do so, he might end up right back at the bottom.
As if made manifest by his concern, the wedge of ice and stone gave a shudder before cracking and shearing away. A jagged boulder struck his wrist, and his axe went spinning into the chasm below. Grum closed his eyes and clung to the rock face, doing his best to ride out the sudden storm. Had he glanced up, he might have seen the larger boulder that slipped in after, skidding down from somewhere higher up the escarpment. When it struck him, his world exploded, and amid the telltale song of snapping anchors, he felt himself bouncing, flailing, plummeting once again, down into darkness.
* * *
When consciousness next greeted him, Grum knew right away that he was in worse shape than before. His head rang, and his vision would not seem to clear. The snow around his head was colored pink with blood, and the pain in his crushed ankle reached now through both legs, clear to his waist.
He lay this time upon his stomach, his arms sprawled out in pinwheel fashion. When he brought them in and tried to push up, a piercing agony in his lower region dropped him back and left him whimpering. He tried again, having no other choice, and twisted his head around to survey the damage. A boulder had landed atop him, sandwiching both legs, and now held him pinned.
Turning back, he cast about for his axe. A couple of his teeth lay in the bloody snow before him, and a hand went to his swollen jaw. His weapon was nowhere to be seen, buried, in all likelihood, on the other side of the cavern. If only he might have fallen on its edge, so as to end his suffering quickly.
Instead, he kept himself alive for two more days. Foolish hope, perhaps, or sheer stubbornness. He had no right to expect a rescue, and there was no longer any way to set himself free. He ate the snow, though it chilled him from within, while his shelter continued to ward him from the storms that swept overhead. He became ill, and was set upon by delirium, to the point that he was not surprised when the voices of his slain comrades began to call down to him.
Grum moaned and stirred, but was unable to escape the haunting echoes.
“Grum, we’re coming for you.”
He dreamt then that they were there, surrounding him. Durin and Alfrigg, even Raegak, with his missing arm, lowered down in a leather sling. They inspected him, and let him sip mead. He mumbled his apologies, but still the wayward spirits would not let him be. They dismissed his concerns and whispered reassurances that all would be well.
The throbbing pain had for the most part died away, but it wracked him anew as the boulder was shifted aside. There was more discussion, and then he felt himself being hoisted skyward, no doubt lifting free of his mortal coil so as to join the bellows winds of the Great Smithy in His everlasting Earthforge.
The Forge itself was scintillating in its brightness. Grum squinted against its glare as he was brought from the fissure and hauled from the sling. There was much more jostling than he had imagined might be found in the afterlife. And still, the nagging pain. He felt himself being set down again in the snow, the way it crunched beneath his weight. But if he was now a spirit . . .
His eyes flickered open. The glare was gone, blocked by the shadows of his friends, who encircled him. They were all there now, even Eitri, who grinned broadly.
“Thought we might have smelled the last of you,” the red-bearded dwarf said.
Only then, as he heard the other’s voice crisp and clear in the brine-filled wind, did Grum realize the truth. He was not dead, but very much alive. More importantly, so were his friends. Impossible, he knew, but he could no longer deny the physical evidence.
“You’re—” he tried to say, but his voice cracked, lending further proof to his realization. “You’re alive.”
His companions glanced at one another, their smiles cold.
“And so shall you be, my athair,” Raegak offered. “So shall you be.”
The others laughed, grunting harshly. Grum’s own mirth began to fade as his gaze shifted from face to face. Something wasn’t right. It was clear his friends all bore the wounds from their final battle. What wasn’t clear was how they had survived them. Raegak’s bloody stump was unbound. Alfrigg’s face remained a mangled mask of torn flesh. Durin’s laugh hissed weirdly through shredded vocal cords.
He turned to Eitri, inspecting the other more closely. A great gash was revealed in his side. Grum saw a hint of internal organs. Like those of the others, the open wound did not seem to trouble him.
Grum felt his pulse quicken, yet wondered anew if he might be dreaming.
Then the dagger struck his chest, biting his lung, so that his scream was choked short by a mouthful of blood.
He looked over, gaping first at the familiar bone handle protruding from his chest, then at the gloved hand of he who held it. Raegak smiled and hissed in his ear, although Grum was no longer certain who his friend was speaking to.
“Taste, my athair. Taste this realm of flesh.”
* * *
It was a world unglimpsed by man, a world of mystery and wonder, uninhabitable by his standards of life. Yet there it flourished in the lightless depths, a veritable jungle of exotic plants, animals, and organisms—forms of life that were not troubled by the frigid cold and impossible pressures, or that needed sunlight to thrive. Creatures here milked the earth of its thermal energies, or fed upon those that did. They saw in ways that beings of light could not, and dwelled their entire lives in isolation from the world above—a world as separate and foreign to them as they to it.
Except for him.
He alone among his deep-sea brethren had seen that world and others, he who bore an awareness and experience unmatched by any mortal being. But this was his home now, and he had learned to cherish the isolation of his surroundings, the tranquility of his final resting spot. Untroubled by even the harshest elements of his environment, he had long ago come to terms with his fate, even learned to take comfort in it. It was as good a place as any in which to while away his eternity.
And yet, he could ignore the waking summons no more. After weeks of restlessness, he had at last stirred to life, allowing his barnacle-encrusted eyelid to slide slowly open. After so many centuries, so many mortal ages, it had taken him but a moment to orient himself, lying upon the bottom of the Oloron Sea, countless fathoms below the world above.
A world to which he must soon return.
He shifted his gargantuan body, and the millions of creatures that had made his coral-covered hide their home scattered. The tides themselves recoiled, and beyond, the seeds of quests were sown—those of the witch . . . the avatar . . . the one who had unleashed this storm . . . He could feel their reactions, even if they as yet could not. For nothing so great had ever lived—or ever would again.
Still, even he could not resist the call, that which beckoned him to emerge, to make known his wrath upon the world. So be it. For despite the passing of centuries, it felt as though he had just barely settled down to rest, and his anger was indeed kindled. He would answer the call. He would resume his timeless hunt.
And he would feed.